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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Bad Dreams" by Tessa Hadley

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker...and it's yours ABSOLUTELY FREE!!!

Issue: Sept. 23, 2013

Story: "Bad Dreams"

Author: Tessa Hadley

Plot: A little girl has a disturbing, "meta"-fictional dream about her favorite book series, in which she writes an Epilogue to the last book of the series and becomes (or begins to become) aware of her own mortality. She wakes up from the dream, goes downstairs into her parents' living room, and up-ends most of the furniture in the room, in some sort of childishly, life-affirming act. Her mother comes downstairs the next day. She is aghast at what she sees, thinking the house has been burglarized. Then she blames the mess on her husband, but doesn't yell at him though, because he's been under a lot of stress. Life goes on as usual. 

Review: This is at least the sixth time Tessa Hadley's fiction has appeared in the NYer and the third time in 2013 alone. Does the NYer have some kind of infatuation for this woman, or is her fiction just that good? Or both? Who am I to say, but I'd guess it's the latter. Hadley seems to write fiction exclusively about young girls in England. Beautifully written, but essentially limp, gauzy stories with the merest suggestion of a plot; however, the stories are often laden with some deep ideas worth un-packing.

First off, in this story I think we're meant to feel there is some connection between the child's acting out, with no intention of confessing her acts, and her mother's silent accusation of her husband. Is this story about repression of emotion? If the child had been able to explain her dream to her parents, would she still have knocked over all the furniture? Hard to say. By the same coin: why doesn't the mother confront the father about the furniture? In this household, which seems a little sterile and boring, it's all about glossing over things  rather than coming out in the open. That's a really great way to run a household, right? Wrong. It also makes for pretty un-exciting fiction and I'm not sure I feel it worthwhile to dissect that any further.

The truly interesting element of this story is the child's meta-dream in which she inserts herself as the author of the Epilogue to her favorite book series. In doing so she becomes aware that she, too, is part of a larger "narrative," namely her own life, and that she too will (hopefully) become an adult and (definitely) die someday. This illustrates the way fiction shapes our minds at a young age and, indeed, the way that fiction and story are inextricably tied to the human experience. From time immemorial, humans have understood their world largely through stories. Isn't a dream, in and of itself, a story too?

This child experiences something quite powerful when she re-writes her story-books in her dream. This experience stirs something deep within her, something elemental and deeply human, and she feels the need to connect with the world somehow. Thus, she turns over all the furniture in her parent's living room. On one level this is a cry for attention; on another level it is an attempt to test her own ability to affect change on the larger "adult" world, an attempt to "write" her own choices into a larger narrative. However, this gets somehow swept under the rug by the mother's insistence on a.) fixing the mess, and b.) not telling anyone.

What's the lesson here? The lesson is, still, to TALK about your problems, for god's sake. If you walk downstairs and all your furniture is turned over, ask a few questions! Make a few inquiries. Don't just tip all the furniture back up and pretend like it never happened, just because you're trying to be a good wife and not nag your husband. WTF is that? This way, the child would understand that her actions DO have effects on the larger, adult world and she might, therefore, learn the concept of responsibility.

Tessa Hadley's world's seem to be full of very large, complex ideas, but very little confrontation or conflict. These are not worlds I want to inhabit for very long, but I do have to admire the complexity of some of her themes, if nothing else. 


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